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Literature laid bare
Review by Ian Thomson
A new translation is true to Stéphane Mallarmé’s melancholy and mystique
Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse, translated by Peter Manson, Miami University Press, RRP£15.95/$24.95, 288 pages
Stéphane Mallarmé, the 19th-century French poet, was a lexical innovator, whose stripped-down verse foreshadowed the hermetic sparsities of Samuel Beckett and Wallace Stevens. For much of his brief life, Mallarmé was prone to bouts of dyspepsia and desperately poor. As a trainee English teacher in 1860s London, nevertheless, he contrived a poetry of mesmeric beauty and strangeness. His most famous verse, “Un coup de dés” (A dice-throw), was compared by one critic to an absinthe flame that “burns in the void” without visible matter. To his painter friend Degas, Mallarmé insisted that poems are made not out of ideas, but out of words alone.
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This new version of the poems by the Glasgow poet and mallarmiste Peter Manson is a marvel of luminous precision. Sensitive at all times to Mallarmé’s ideal of a literature stripped to the bone, the translation glows with a melancholy sense of absence (“The flesh is sad, and I’ve read all the books”). As Manson reminds us, Mallarmé was a tireless promoter of Edgar Allan Poe, in whom he saw a European sensibility at work; much of his verse, like Poe’s, aspires to the condition of music.